This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 185-188, 196-198.

Jean Racine was born in 1639 at La Ferte-Milon, where his father was controller of the salt magazine and of the salt tax. Becoming an orphan in his fourth year, the boy was taken in charge by near relatives, and at the age of eleven or twelve was sent to the collège de Beauvais, proceeding thence to the monastery at Port Royal, whither his grandmother and two aunts had retired to devote themselves to piety and the education of youth. Here he remained about four years, learning Greek from the sacristan, Claude Lancelot, who came to treat him as a son, and Latin and the humanities from Nicole. At times, it is to be feared, he proved a somewhat intractable pupil. Lancelot, having surprised him while reading the Aethiopica, a story hardly suited to one of his age, angrily threw the book into the fire; whereupon the youth immediately procured another copy, read it to the last line, and then, carrying it to the sacristan, sullenly remarked, "You may burn this as well." But impatience of restraint was not accompanied by a disinclination to study; on the contrary, his progress was rapid enough to awaken sanguine hopes as to his future. In the matter of Greek scholarship, it would seem, he learned more than Lancelot could teach him, burying himself in the woods to pore over Euripides and Sophocles, until he had acquired a deep insight into the predominating spirit of the plays. Bidding adieu to Port Royal, with its picturesque and venerable associations, he entered the collège d'Harcourt, there to study philosophy, being now the ward of his cousin, Nicholas Vitart, financial secretary to the duc de Luynes. A year or two later, when urged to choose a profession, he directed his attention by turns to law and theology. He had no taste for either, but in the end, probably at the solicitation of his friends at Port Royal, who did not wish to lose sight of so promising a pupil, he undertook to prepare himself for the church. Theology, as we shall see, was the profession to which Racine finally devoted himself, but at this time his tastes inclined to literature, and especially to dramatic literature, though well aware that his powers were not yet sufficiently developed for the task.


It soon became evident that he had no sympathy for his self-elected calling. Established for a time in Paris as an assistant to his guardian, he gave himself up to doubtful pleasures, fell into bad company, and in some of his letters went so far as to ridicule the pious forms of expression adopted by the Port Royalists. Moreover, new ideas and aspirations took possession of his mind. In honor of the royal marriage he wrote an ode entitled La Nymph de la Seine, unquestionably possessed of merit though disfigured by many faults. Chapelain was then arbiter of the royal bounties to men of letters, and Vitart sent him the manuscript. "Many of the stanzas," he wrote in reply, "could not be improved. If a few passages I have marked are set right--especially one in which Tritons are placed in a river--the ode will be a fine one." Racine, of course, made all the alterations suggested, and on the recommendation of Chapelain he received one hundred louis d'or from Colbert in the name of the king. This unexpected success disposed him to rely upon literature, but soon afterward, probably to avoid reproaches from Port Royal as to his mode of living and pursuits, he became the guest at Uzes of his mother's brother, Antoine Sconin, the vicar-general in that town, who wished to find him a benefice. Here he wrote his notes on the Odyssey and the Olympiads--a proof that he did not allow his mind to be too much exercised upon theological subjects. In less than eighteen months he returned to Paris, and again took to authorship.

Fortune continued to smile on the efforts of the young poet. For writing an ode on the recovery of the grand monarque from an attack of the measles, he was awarded a pension of six hundred francs--a sum then sufficient for a bare maintenance. His next effusion was on a more poetical theme, La Renommée aux Muses, which Boileau criticised with so much good sense and kindness that the author sought an introduction, and the two men became fast friends. The elder used to boast that he had taught the other how to write verse, which was probably the fact. Be that as it may, Racine soon addressed himself to one of the most trying forms of composition. He wrote for the Bourgogne a tragedy entitled Amasie, which was first accepted and then declined. Molière gave him more encouragement, and was rewarded by finding in La Thébaïde, a drama prepared at his suggestion, more than one sign of imaginative power, with depth of sensibility and command of language. By this time, still pressed by the Port Royalists, Racine had become prior of Epinay.


When the manager of the Théâtre du Palais Royal received Racine's tragedy, Alexandre le Grand, opinion was much divided as to its merits. St. Evremand waxed eloquent in its praise. "No longer," he said, "does the decadence of Corneille fill me with alarm as to the immediate future of tragedy." On the other hand, Corneille himself, to whom the manuscript was submitted, thought that M. Racine did not unite with his rare gifts as a poet a turn for the drama. In this he was deceived; but it is also true that if Racine had written nothing after Alexandre we should be constrained to adopt the same opinion. Notwithstanding the vigor with which the conqueror is occasionally brought before us, the general effect of the play is inferior to that of La Thébaïde, and the prominence given to the character of Porus argues an imperfect sense of dramatic proportion. Moreover, the author was still under the influence of the author of Cinna, though in some of the scenes we meet with gleams of tenderness all but new to the stage. Finally, however, Alexandre, with a few alterations suggested by Boileau, was played at the Palais Royal. Statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the piece met with good success. Molière had some superb scenery painted for it, and the acting was meritorious enough to elicit special praise.


Nevertheless, Racine was not satisfied with what had been done for him. He made no secret of his belief that the tragedy had not created the effect of which it was susceptible. The sycophants who hover about a rising man soon found means of consoling him. Had Alexandre been played by the Troupe, always superior to the Comédians du Roi in tragedy, the result, they maintained, would have been very different. Racine eagerly caught at the suggestion contained in this remark. He secretly sent a copy of the play to Floridor, at the same time extracting a promise from Mddle. Duparc, in whose talents he had a lively faith, that she would transfer her services from her old manager to his rivals. Hastily, but efficiently rehearsed, Alexandre was brought out at the Bourgogne on the occasion of its sixth performance at the Palais Royal, and the novel incident of a play being represented in two theatres at the same time naturally gave rise to some remark in Paris. It need hardly be said that the unavoidable comparison between the two troupes was to the disadvantage of Molière's, as the cast at the other playhouse included Floridor, Montfleuri and Mdlle. Desœillets. Molière was, of course, profoundly hurt by what had occurred. He had behaved with the greatest kindness to Racine, receiving him constantly as a guest, lending him much-needed money, keeping La Thébaïde on the bills at a loss to himself rather than allow it to be supposed that the piece had not had a fairly long run, and producing Alexandre with a splendor which the chances of its success by no means justified. In return for these and other favors, the young poet had publicly affronted the troupe, had exposed it to damaging comparisons, and had robbed it of an actress whose place could not easily be supplied. It was in no half-hearted manner that Molière resented the black ingratitude with which he had been treated. He never spoke to Racine again.



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